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California Custody and Visitation Basics – Know the Facts

When a couple with minor children decides to end their marriage, deciding issues regarding where the children will live, and who gets to make decisions about the children is often the most emotional part of the process. When making any decisions regarding custody and visitation, courts look at what is thought to be in the best interests of the children. There are a number of different arrangements that can be used depending on the specific factors in each case.

Custody: Legal and Physical

Custody can refer to either legal custody, which involves the ability to make important decisions for the child and physical custody, which refers to where the child lives.

A parent with legal custody has the rights to make decisions about things such as medical decisions for the child, the child’s religious education, where the child will attend school, whether the child can travel, where the child will live and can make decisions about extracurricular activities.

Legal custody may be held jointly, where both parents share the responsibilities, or can be held as sole legal custody, where only one parent has the ability to make these decisions.

Likewise, joint physical custody, where the child or children live with both parents, and sole physical custody, where the child lives with only one of the parents, are both possible arrangements. In cases where one parent has sole physical custody, the other parent can still have visitation. Even when physical custody is held jointly, it is usually the case that the child or children will ultimately spend more time with one parent than the other for practical reasons. The parent who has the children more of the time might be referred to as the “primary custodial parent.”


There are numerous types of visitation arrangements. In many cases, visitation schedules are arranged in which each parent has time with the children according to a set schedule. The schedule can include arrangements for vacations, holidays and other special events.

Some parents can work together to come up with their own schedule based on reasonable visitation time. In these scenarios, the schedule is not determined by the court, but rather can change and vary based on the what works for the parents. Of course, this can result in disagreements when the parents are not able to come to agreements.

In situations where a parent does not have a well-established relationship with the child, or where the children would not be safe if they were left with one of the parents, the court might order supervised visitation. In these cases, one parent will only be able to visit with the children in the presence of another adult, such as the other parent, or a representative of a professional agency.

There are also cases when allowing even supervised visitation with one parent is considered too much of a risk to the children because the parent would be physically or emotionally abusive.

In all of these decisions, the court prioritizes the best interests of the children. If you are trying to come up with a parenting schedule, you should speak with an experienced family law attorney.

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Stephen Levine, is a Board Certified Specialist in Criminal Defense — an honor achieved by only the top criminal law attorneys in California. Mr. Levine has over 40 years of experience in criminal defense and family law serving Southern California, and is a highly regarded Super Lawyer as well as AV Rated attorney.